SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET
****/**** Image A Sound A Extras B+
starring Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Sacha Baron Cohen
screenplay by John Logan, based on the musical by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler
directed by Tim Burton
screenplay by Vincent Paronnaud & Marjane Satrapi, based on the novel by Satrapi
directed by Vincent Paronnaud & Marjane Satrapi
by Walter Chaw Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is easily Tim Burton's best film. It's uncompromised, deceptively uncomplicated, perverse in the most delightful way, and, maybe most importantly, it represents at last the full potency of Burton's German Expressionist vision. No surprise that it's closest allayed to Burton's previous career-pinnacle, his self-contained fairytale Edward Scissorhands--sporting, like that film, a black-clad protagonist festooned with blades who achieves his adolescence (and purpose) in a slanted attic chamber. This is another gothic romance, no explanation for snow but instead demonstration of the frugal repast of revenge's dish served cold. It's best described as a diary of the unrequited, a journal of terminal, irresolvable frustration. A violent, giallo-lurid succession of leering throat-slashings with a soupçon of cannibalism (I'm kind of shocked, truth be told, that the picture was completed in this form), this adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's genius 1979 musical is a timely film, boasting the sort of contemporary topicality of which only eternal works like Sondheim's are capable. Whatever the circumstances of its creation, watching it in this way speaks explicitly to the dismal tide of 2007, the desire to recover the illusory past (its hero speaks of his younger self as "naïve")--the recognition at the last that things are only ever as terrible as they've ever been; and that the only refuge from despair is embracing the tiny moments of human connection that make life liveable.
Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp), barber, has his idyllic life stripped from him when an amorous judge, Turpin (Alan Rickman), exiles him to prison colony Australia, rapes his wife, and adopts his daughter with the intention of grooming her to be the next Mrs. Turpin. Returning after fifteen years, he takes on the Bride of Frankenstein's mane and mania, and under the name "Sweeney Todd" reopens his chair above Mrs. Lovett's (Helena Bonham Carter) bakery (known for the worst meat pies in London), where he plots his revenge. What fascinates is Sweeney's disintegration in the crucible of his own lust for vengeance; he nurses a venomous misanthropy like a viper to his breast:
There's a hole in the world like a great black pit
and it's filled with people who are filled with shit!
And the vermin of the world inhabit it!
This process of dehumanization allows Sweeney to visit all manner of atrocity on the innocents patronizing his establishment, slitting throats in Guignol jets of arterial spray and sliding corpses down a chute for processing into Mrs. Lovett's meat pies. Subsequent scenes of great crowds of people shovelling long pork into their gullets speak to a sympathetic misanthropy in Burton. It recalls that moment in Sleepy Hollow where the Headless Horseman stops, returns, and pulls a little boy who's just witnessed his parents' decapitation out from beneath the floorboards. (If you have chance to listen to that DVD's commentary track, note Burton's delighted giggle.) As much as Edward Scissorhands is Sweeney Todd's closest analogue in terms of auteur tendencies, Sleepy Hollow is the best predictor of the pitch-black humour and gleeful wallow in absurd mercilessness enjoyed here.
Burton's debt to German Expressionism finds itself fully expressed in Sweeney Todd's combination of real locations and CGI, which evoke The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari's similar merging of sets with elaborately painted backdrops--though only Sweeney's barbershop and a quick visit to Bedlam Asylum feature angles askew, so that even in the set design there is the suggestion that beneath the veneer of order/progress represented by London (and Law in Turpin--and the Industrial Revolution, even) there lurk minds broken by the same order and alleged progress. This London is William Blake's "London" ("In every cry of every man,/In every infant's cry of fear,/In every voice, in every ban,/The mind-forged manacles I hear:"); from the first refrain sung from the prow of a boat approaching an under-construction London Bridge, the picture announces itself as faithful to both Sondheim's thematic perfection and Burton's own cinematic vision. Burton has made some great pictures--Sweeney Todd is the culmination of them. More, it's the culmination of a year in cinema that equates the lie of the past (compare it to films of 2004 that saw the past as not so bad) with the lie of Eden. It's not that we lost it: it was never ours to have. Sweeney Todd ends with a tableau mort that should grace the cover of any critical examination of the year that was when it's written decades from now. It's wonderful in its terrible beauty.
The process of dehumanization in the gathering to war is as ageless as war itself. I like this bit from Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian:
It makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way.
Nihilistic? I choose to look at it as affirmation of our essential humanity. By that light, it becomes difficult to look at film (or any human expression) as anything other than a process of ideological warfare. More ominously, it's become an integral part of a nationalistic process leading up to physical war. The extent to which we as a society consent to certain images in our most democratic medium points to the direction in which we as a nation are heading in terms of our next aggressions. The process of dehumanization, once achieved by the largeness of the world and the ease with which the village in the valley could be painted as cannibals by the village on the hill has metastasized in our fast-information age in the likes of Michael Bay films and The Kingdom. Finding ourselves on the verge of a war with a Persian nation with over 1500 years of recorded history (and an enormous standing army, and an unpopular fundamentalist leader as frightening as our own unpopular fundamentalist leader), in comes Marjane Satrapi's gentle, barbed Persepolis to attempt a quick re-education that makes carpet-bombing another civilian population a little, shall we say, unsavoury.
Audiences familiar with Satrapi's remarkable two-book autobiographical graphic novel upon which the film is based will notice that a lot of the class separations of Satrapi's wealthy family have been left out along with the bulk of overt politicism. A description of torture endured by friends of her family remains, but talk of Saddam Hussein's use of chemical weapons in the Iran/Iraq war was jettisoned. I wondered about this during the film as a fan of Satrapi and her deceptively-simply illustrated books; I hoped that she wasn't trying to soften her film for a wider audience. But then it occurred to me that Persepolis is political in the anthropological sense, not in the obvious sense: she's attempting what Margaret Mead attempted with Coming of Age in Samoa, albeit in a less blinkered fashion. Satrapi doesn't attempt to portray her Iran as a wonderland--far from it (its portrait of a dystopia ruled by religion warring against intellectualism is the realist version of The Golden Compass). Rather, she delivers a cross-section of human profiles living at tension with the Mullahs and their thought police. By confessing her childhood obsession with Iron Maiden bootlegs and Michael Jackson, she gives us a means through which we can access Iranians with human traits: longing, rebellion, love, friendship, and the desire to live authentically and free of so much interference from petty thugs and theocratic morons. In a real sense, Persepolis illustrates that the extent to which fundamentalism has tightened its band around our artistic selves is leading both countries (ours and hers) into that old danse macabre. The cost of nursing vipers at the breast is as dire as it is apparently unavoidable.
Satrapi as a child during the overthrow of the Shah and then, in the film's second half, as a teen living in Vienna forms the narrative thrust of Persepolis. In the book, there's much made of Satrapi's attempted suicide, of her noticing, in touching moments, the new greyness of her mother's hair and concurrently the new resignation of an Iran that Satrapi declares is no longer a place for her at the end of the piece. "Freedom has its price," her younger, animated, self declares--and while she's talking about the death of her beloved grandmother, she's also talking about the damage people do to themselves when they refuse to toe the popular line. Persepolis as a film is more about human interaction than socio-political philosophy: it extends the failed romances of its second half and expands the sequences with an uncle sent to prison in the first. The result is a heartbreaking pastiche of nostalgia--again, that mad desire to reclaim a past full of pain, betrayal, and disillusionment because it was Eden. The basis of the film is the basis of how we begin to tell ourselves stories against the bellowing dark just outside the nimbus of our firelight. Morning dawns on toil and pain--and no matter the ebullience of Persepolis, there is there just beneath its surface this noble attempt to tell the West that the Near East is as riddled with dreamers and scoundrels as the West. How could it be that we so want to extinguish versions of ourselves in the pursuit of something that never existed and will never be possible through our mutual destruction? It seems a piffle, but it's the flashpoint for an avalanche. Originally published: December 21, 2007.
THE BLU-RAY DISC - SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET
by Bill Chambers Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street makes its belated North American Blu-ray debut in an electric 1.85:1, 1080p presentation. The DVD is actually a tough act to follow for how well it upconverts to 1080, but an A/B comparison yielded some striking improvements in small-object detail. This is a soft-focused film with whole scenes swallowed by purposefully-impenetrable shadows, but a lot of image texture that was sacrificed in standard-def is present and accounted for on BD, from the cobblestone streets to the stitching of clothes to the ultra-fine grain of the celluloid itself. Too, blacks in general are more satisfyingly deep. Once cranked up past reference level, the attendant 5.1 Dolby TrueHD audio sounds phenomenally lush and sneakily expansive, both horizontally and vertically.
With Tim Burton having eschewed his usual commentary track, extras are entirely video-based and begin with "Burton + Depp + Carter = Todd" (26 mins., 1080i), a respectable making-of from Sparkhill that, as you might have guessed, winnows its focus to the titular talent. Helena Bonham Carter gets in a few passive-aggressive digs at husband Burton ("After this film, that's [all we have in common]. We do have a child, I guess"), ending even the most penetrating insights--such as the "unconscious autobiography" that infects Burton's designs, like the bouts of insomnia that give him and, consequently, his characters dark circles under their eyes--with tart-tongued potshots ("He'll hate me saying that, but fuck him"). There's also a vivid recollection of the anxiety that infiltrated the production after Depp had been cast without anyone having heard his singing voice--but back to Carter: she goes so far as to describe Burton's gay-panic over their son's fondness for Judy Garland records. I have to say, for as embarrassed as I feel for Burton, Carter's irreverence is a breath of fresh air in the context of these things. Others like Alan Rickman get in on the act in "Sweeney Todd Press Conference, Nov 2007" (20 mins., 480i), but there it's less iconoclasm than it is a defense mechanism against some thoroughly inane queries (e.g., "Could you tell us how you made the blood?").
"Sweeney Todd Is Alive: The Real History of the Demon Barber" (20 mins., 480i) is a muddled but no less interesting account of Sweeney Todd's historic/folkloric origins courtesy various scholars that actually becomes more interesting as its borders expand to encompass the births of the penny blood and penny dreadful, which in England corresponded with a nationwide increase in literacy! It makes a great companion piece to "Musical Mayhem: Sondheim's Sweeney Todd" (12 mins., 1080i), in which Sondheim credits little-known British playwright Chris Bond with introducing those elements of The Count of Monte Cristo and The Revenger's Tragedy that would make his musical interpretation of the Sweeney Todd myth the definitive one. Still, Sondheim plays it pretty close to the vest when it comes to what, exactly, inspired him about the material proper, other than that he felt gypped that Bond's 1973 play didn't deliver on its promise of a Grand Guignol. "Sweeney's London" (16 mins., 1080i) follows with another history lesson (primarily delivered by crime historian Donald Rumbelow), "The Making of Sweeney Todd" (24 mins., 480i) recalibrates much of the interview footage we've just seen to a promotional pitch, and--speak of the devil--"Grand Guignol: A Theatrical Tradition" (19 mins.) offers a primer on the genre of naturalistic horror and the converted Paris church where it all began, with uniquely-qualified talking-heads Richard J. Hand, Mel Gordon, and Eric Horton (grandson of the Guignol's last official director) trumping the WIKIPEDIA entry on same through the force of their personalities.
"Designs for a Demon Barber" (9 mins., 1080i) finds not only costume designer Colleen Atwood, a long-time Burton familiar, expounding on the film's wardrobe choices (most hilariously, Sweeney's striped bathing suit), but also veteran production designer Dante Feretti (subtitled) reflecting on this most harmonious collaboration with the director, who gave Feretti a copy of James Whale's Frankenstein to use as an aesthetic guide. "A Bloody Business" (9 mins., 1080i) meanwhile reveals how the blood-spurting effects were achieved; I came away doubly admiring the craft of all those throat-slittings, each of which required up to a gallon of the red stuff. In the final featurette, "Moviefone Unscripted with Tim Burton & Johnny Depp" (11 mins., 480i/4:3 letterbox), Burton and Depp are again pelted with idiotic questions and respond with tongues planted firmly in cheeks. Best part: when someone e-mails them from the town of "Fetus." Depp here, by the way, is charis-fucking-matic, and totally without movie-star airs. (Burton is just incorrigible.) "The Razor's Refrain" (9 mins., 1080p) is a montage of production stills set to a mini-suite of the song-score. Point? Unknown. An HD gallery of concept art and behind-the-scenes photos joins Sweeney Todd's theatrical trailer (1080, DD 5.1) in rounding out the platter. Originally published: October 23, 2008.
You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.